Every year at the end of January, many in the Bay Area film community tune their radar to the snowy, showy glare of the Sundance Film Festival. For anyone not actually attending, however, there’s a big, contrastingly “dark” consolation prize: The virtually simultaneous Noir City festival. Who’s to say those stay-at-homes aren’t the luckier ones?
Now in its eighth year, Noir City takes over the Castro Theatre for ten days January 22-31. The theme is “Lust and Larceny," and there are a number of nights paying tribute to particular stars and directors. Each double bill is a single $10 ticket; uniquely, the festival’s proceeds go directly toward preservation of its frequently rare titles. (Over half this year’s features have never been released to DVD.)
Some personalities were made for noir, and indeed might never have achieved stardom without the genre’s help. Not among them: Marilyn Monroe. Yet even she had a couple brushes with the genre, as showcased this Sunday’s program. Her first big break (albeit as a brunette) was a supporting role in John Huston’s classic heist-gone-wrong thriller The Asphalt Jungle. Three years later, in 1953, she played the only outright villainess of her career in Henry Hathaway’s Niagra, as a vixen whose conniving ways drive husband Joseph Cotton to murderous rage. Shot in lurid color, it’s a guilty pleasure for sure.
More typically associated with noir are the hard-boiled likes of Richard Widmark, Gloria Grahame and John Garfield, each of whom get tribute nights. The rare actor who could regularly flip between hero and villain roles, Widmark combined both playing protagonists who are cads (but not entirely bad) in Noir City’s January double. The famous one is Sam Fuller’s 1953 Pickup on South Street, in which he’s a Manhattan pickpocket who gets in over his head with both Feds and Reds.
Much lesser-known is Andre de Toth’s 1949 Slattery’s Hurricane. Widmark plays a cynical pilot who hangs his long-suffering girlfriend out to dry upon encountering an old flame (Linda Darnell)–despite the latter’s inconveniently marriage to his old Navy buddy (Gary Merrill).
The girlfriend provided a last significant role for Veronica Lake (then wife to de Toth), who’d been a sensation earlier in the decade. (This Gun for Hire and The Glass Key, her first two pairings with costar Alan Ladd, were among the first/best films classifiable as noir.) But her popularity diminished once her trademark “peek-a-boo bang” hairdo was shorn….by government request! (Imitating that look, women working in WWII-era factories kept getting their long tresses caught in machinery.) While the censors required a toning-down of Herbert Wouk’s source novel, Hurricane is nonetheless pretty strong meat, with its dark intimations of drug addiction and trafficking. It’s worth seeing for Widmark’s spectacularly obnoxious drunk scene alone.
Other talents spotlit in this year’s Noir City edition include directors Robert Siodmak and Robert Parrish, scenarist Bill Bowers, and the “Ice Queen of Noir”–Belita, the exotically named British figure skater launched as “the new Sonja Henie.” Unlike that kewpie-doll ’30s star, however, Belita was a more sultry type. Hence the weird mix of chilly production numbers and murderous intrigue in “Poverty Row” studio Monogram’s ambitious 1946 Suspense. She doesn’t even skate in The Gangster (1948), playing a showgirl with many a questionable excuse to answer her boyfriend’s suspicions–Barry Sullivan in a terrific performance as a stone-hard enforcer reduced to jelly by love.
It’s the kind of stylish, surprising rediscovery that makes Noir City indispensable–not that there’s anything wrong with screening such established classics as The Postman Always Rings Twice (the Garfield/Lana Turner version, of course) or George Stevens’ A Place in the Sun, the 1951 Theodore Dreiser adaptation whose swooning closeups of Elizabeth Taylor and Montgomery Clift cemented their stardom.
A couple returning theme evenings are guaranteed to be fun: Expect plenty of bullet bras on- and offscreen for Wednesday the 27th’s “Bad Girls” night that pairs two tawdry Columbia Pictures delights. There’s the obscure ’53 One Girl’s Confession, one among several C-grade potboilers in which portly Czech emigre writer-director-star Hugo Haas was tormented by the manipulations of Cleo Moore–a blonde bombshell even lower on the Marilyn Monroe-wannabe list than Mamie Van Doren. She turns up again in 1955’s Women’s Prison, just one among many hair-pulling hussies in exceptionally tight “uniforms” distressed by each other and evil warden Ida Lupino. This movie is the mutha of of all women-in-prison exploitation flicks, albeit without the nudity that abounded in such later schlock classics as Chained Heat (the immortal 1983 intersection of Linda Blair, Stella Stevens, Sybil Danning, Russ Meyer fave Edy Williams, and Tamara “Cleopatra Jones” Dobson).
Thursday it’s “San Francisco Night,” featuring two amongst the numerous noirs set in our fair city. 1949’s Red Light, starring the great George Raft, is a fascinating-sounding mix of criminal melodrama and religious symbolism that was unavailable for preview.
The prior year’s Walk a Crooked Mile is a gritty Red-scare procedural that makes full use of S.F. locations as FBI and Scotland Yard investigators team up to trace an atomic-energy plant security leak. Which cannot be said of 1945’s Escape in the Fog (playing Noir City’s closing night), an early effort by future Western specialist Budd Boetticher. Its oddball mystery is set here, but the the only evidence of actual location shooting are some stock Golden Gate Bridge shots.
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